Yesterday, I completed the rewrite for this years BBC Writer’s Room open call. I put in a really hard week at the keyboard and got it done. It is has been a fun but challenging rewrite. Essentially, I took one of my favourite comedy, feature film, scripts and rebooted it as a sitcom. In the new version, I moved the setting of the story, created new locations and added in a new primary character. This wasn’t a daunting task. I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t all fun, though. There was one piece of the process I didn’t enjoy. One of the submission requirements was for a logline. The logline I’d written for the movie script wasn’t appropriate, simply because the old story arc was the first thing I ditched in the reboot. I threw a couple of hours at it and found something that worked, but I genuinely didn’t enjoy the process. But, why do I hate writing loglines so much?
Years ago, I used to make an annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival. I went there to talk to people. Not just people who could help my career. I used to talk to anyone who wanted to chat. This meant I ended up talking to a lot of screenwriters who were there to pitch projects. Nothing can prepare you for the experience of a screenwriter pitching their story. Most of us are utterly hopeless at it. 99% of the time, if you ask a screenwriter to pitch your their film they will launch into a long, dull, rambling list of “and then Chris does this,” “and then Jenny says that.” Basically, most screenwriters pitch their story by reciting their beat sheet. Listening to other screenwriters pitch badly is what helped me understand the industry’s need for loglines. If I had to listen to pitches every day I’d want the writers to be able to tell me the heart of the story in as few words as possible. For that reason alone , loglines make perfect sense. Given that producers and commissioning editors like loglines it makes sense for writers to love them too.
There is another reason for writers to like loglines. One of the reasons writers are so bad at pitching is often they don’t really know what their story is. A lot of screenplays are really unfocused. One of my oldest screenwriting friends used to talk about writing a “compass logline.” A compass logline was a couple of sentences that encapsulate the feel and themes of the story, which the writer can use as a compass when writing. The question “does this scene serve the story?” is easier to judge if you’ve got a couple of lines to use as your compass.
As you can see, I understand why loglines are important and how they can help the writer. Despite this, I still hate loglines. Loglines are brilliant tools, but they are problematic. The very thing that makes them strong, the ability to encapsulate a story in a couple of sentences, is precisely the thing I struggle with. For me, great scripts are explorations of the ways specific characters interact with circumstance. This means a script’s potential really can’t be captured in a logline. Loglines are just too reductive. Plots are relatively easy to reduce to their bare bones. This is because stories are pretty limited in their scope. Characters are really difficult to reduce to their elements without becoming a cliche´. I believe, if you can reduce your character in a way that can be explained in a logline, there is a very good chance the character wasn’t that good in the first place.
I don’t know what the answer to the logline problem is. The industry needs a way to easily understand the stories. However, great stories need characters with a degree of complexity which can’t be successfully reduced to a logline. One of the results of “logline thinking” is scripts with easily pitchable concepts, but relatively weak character development, are more likely to progress towards production. You can see this in action when you look at the difference between the TV industry and the Film Industry. The TV industry knows it needs character complexity to sustain long-running series. For most of the TV industry, a synopsis and a show bible are more important than the logline. Both of these documents are explorations of the relationship between characters and the plot.
For this submission to the BBC, I tried to break the traditional formula for loglines. I chose to completely ignore the normal idea of a single protagonist’s relationship to the plot. Instead, I made a valiant attempt to distil what I love about these characters into a couple of sentences. From the point of view of getting my script selected I may have made a terrible mistake by moving away from a conventional pitch, but deep down, I know my project and it’s my characters and the strange world they inhabit which makes Smoke what it is. I’m at a point, as a writer, where I’m more interested in the integrity of my work than I am in making a career. Only time will tell whether this was a gamble worth making.